- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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It is not exactly the rivalry it once was, but the Miami Heat still raise the competitive ire of the Chicago Bulls, and LeBron James and Co.'s visit Thursday night to the United Center, said Joakim Noah, is going to have the place "popping."
"It's not (just another game on the schedule), it's really not," Noah said. "It's exciting. These are the games you circle on the calendar. You know it's going to be ... loud. Those are the games you train hard for."
The Heat, at 36-14, lead the Eastern Conference and remain the team to beat as the defending NBA champions. Despite the Bulls' 96-89 victory Jan. 4 in Miami the last time the teams played, the focus will always be on the postseason.
"Every game is an obstacle," Noah said. "The NBA season is very long and grueling, it's very hard. Obviously the playoffs is what it's all about. Winning these games in the regular season is very important. It gives you confidence, it gives you good seeding and we now we have one of the toughest buildings to play in and we want that for the playoffs."
There will be few surprises, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
"We played them 13 times over the last three years and they're all the same," he said. "They're going to be physical, hard-fought, tough, it usually comes down to the last possession and nothing is going to change. They're extremely well-coached, hard-playing, tough. They play together. They're not going to beat themselves. You have to play well to beat them."
James has already made the MVP race a runaway and Noah did not hesitate to agree he is "a handful."
"You have to give credit where credit is due," Noah said. "He's one of the best and you have to respect your opponent. But at the same time, we feel we're more than capable of winning. So, we respect our abilities too."
14hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
15hJason McCallum, ESPN Stats & Info
4dMatt Walks, ESPN.com